Warning: This post contains spoilers for the movie Split.
This weekend, a new M. Night Shyamalan movie descended into theaters. It stars James McAvoy as someone with dissociative identity disorder and two dozen personalities all fighting for control. At the movie’s start, he abducts three young women and a reign of psychological terror ensues.
The crux of Split, which we won’t get into too deeply just yet, is determining whether the various personalities that make up Kevin (aka Dennis/Patricia/Hedwig/etc.) are all bad or if one might be willing to help the three girls, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula. The young women are trying to figure that out while being his captors. Meanwhile, his psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) is trying to figure it out from meetings with her patient.
During all this, Kevin (or, rather, Dennis) keeps talking about a new personality simply called The Beast. The Beast may want the girls for food, or he may prove that Kevin is supernatural, or he may not even exist at all. (Who’s to say?!) But even after the truth is revealed about The Beast, writer/director Shyamalan delivers one more surprise twist for his longtime fans. And that’s what WIRED’s Angela Watercutter and Brian Raftery are here today to talk about.
Angela Watercutter: OK, Brian, before we go too deep into Kevin’s psyche and that bonkers final five minutes, I need to ask you: Did you like Split? I felt as though two-thirds of the way in I wanted to create a new personality that wasn’t in the theater (or who would allow me to leave it). It wasn’t that I wasn’t entertained—I thought McAvoy was really giving it 110 percent, and ever since The Witch I’ll watch Taylor-Joy do anything—but I started feeling like the suspense was losing its grip on me. I sort of felt like it needed to get somewhere fast and it just wasn’t getting there quickly enough for me.
Also, after about an hour I was really burning out on the half-naked crying girls and ham-fisted child-molestation plots. Did those grate on you at all? I generally like Shyamalan’s work (well, most of it), so I don’t want to rag on him too much since I did end up enjoying Split, but only because the movie paid off at the end. Would you agree? Or were you having fun throughout?
Brian Raftery: There were certainly a few moments during which I myself was tempted to split, most notably those exposition-addled therapy-session scenes, as well as the icky child-abuse flashbacks, which felt fleeting and reductive. But, like you, I’m a Shyamalan fan, and I’m well aware that every time he swings away at a big idea, the movie inevitably suffers some collateral damage. It’s what made his late ’90s to early ’00s work such essential opening-weekend viewing: What surprises are in store for me, and how much will they drive me crazy?
So even if I occasionally rolled my eyes during Split, I never averted them—mostly because it exudes the sort of goony joy he denied himself during the earlier years of his career, when he was using the supernatural to tell bigger stories about grief (The Village, Signs), abandonment (The Sixth Sense), and mean trees (The Happening). There are some similarly interesting ideas buried deep down in Split—most notably, the notions of how human beings (and, of course, filmmakers) rely on manipulation as a survival tool, and of the lingering effects of trauma—but it’s also comfortable with just being a well-made, lowbrow-brilliant jolt-machine, one that uses A-list talent to elevate a B-movie plot. And, like 2015’s giddy (and equally low-budget) The Visit, it forces Shyamalan to simplify his shocks: More blood, more menace, and a lot less fussiness about who lives, and who dies.
Which leads us to the first twist, in which we learn The Beast is not some imagined alter-ego, but a real (and really savage) creature that McAvoy summons in the film’s third act, which finds him running around Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, shirtless and causing chaos (a not-uncommon sight at that location, especially after an Eagles-Cowboys game). If you’d spent the previous hour or so convinced that Shyamalan was playing some sort of literal mind game with us—that perhaps Taylor-Joy’s character was the one suffering from a disorder, or that McAvoy’s kidnapper was making everything up as he went along—Split’s initial reveal was surprising in its simplicity: Kevin (and M. Night) had been telling the truth the whole time, without any narrative trickery or sleight-of-hand. I found Split’s relatively straightforward reveal more satisfying than the overly complicated gotcha! I was expecting, and it’s further proof of just how pared-down Shyamalan’s filmmaking has become these days (I also thought McAvoy’s Beast, finally unleashed from his other personalities, made for an effectively chilly wall-crawler).
How about you did you feel cheated by that first discovery? And how did you feel about that second, seemingly much more complicated twist?
Watercutter: I was definitely in the camp that started to believe the whole thing was happening in Taylor-Joy’s character Casey’s mind, especially since the first two acts spent so much time on her (yes, gross) child-abuse flashbacks. Like you, I was relieved when that wasn’t the case. Throughout the movie I had been quietly worrying something in the reveal was going to be disappointing (I think this happened largely because McAvoy’s Patricia gave me Buffalo Bill vibes?) When it then turned out that there was indeed a Beast that we would see manifest on-screen, that’s when I really thought Split was making good on its promises.
As for that second twist… Man. We should probably say “spoiler warning” one more time here, but here goes: Just before the final credits, we cut to a diner, where a crowd of patrons is watching a news report on the kidnapping of Casey and her friends. One of the customers notes that the story reminds them of another event that happened years ago, when a madman in a wheelchair was apprehended—what was his name again? And that’s when Bruce Willis shows up, reprising his Unbreakable character, and reminds them that the old baddie was dubbed “Mr. Glass.”
What?! FFS! Apparently there were rumors floating around that this was going to be a low-key sequel to that film, but I definitely missed them, so I was doubly surprised by this. Most of the people in the theater I saw it in were too—and most of them had started leaving during the credits sequence where it happened. (Nice Marvel Move there, M. Night.) So, as far as genuine shocks go, this one worked.
But my bigger question now is: What does this mean? Was it just a wink at die-hard fans (see what I did there?) or is Shyamalan looking to actually do an off-kilter, low-budget superhero series of some kind? There were somewhat inexplicable references to Kevin’s personalities being a kind of superhuman power—and being able to morph into a Beast who can bend bars is pretty, um, above-average—but I just don’t know if that’s the end game here. And after so many years of Shyamalan fake-outs, it’s hard to know what to believe. That said, the idea of M. Night helming an original mini-franchise about superhumans who aren’t necessarily superheroes doesn’t sound like a terrible idea. In fact, it would be nice counter-programming to all the big-budget comic book movies.
What about you, Brian? What did you think of The Twist? Were you surprised? Do you have any idea what this might mean for Shyamalan’s future films? You are, after all, the one here two actually talked to the guy.
Raftery: My first reaction to that Willis scene, obviously, was: “Unbreakable! They alive, dammit! It’s a miracle!” I’ve always been a fan of Shyamalan’s 2000 with-great-powers drama, in which he crafted his own comic-book origin-story at a time when superhero movies were still considered risky (Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie had opened only a few months prior). And I’m not alone: The Sixth Sense may have gotten all the Oscar attention, but of all Shyamalan’s films, I’d wager Unbreakable is his most beloved—not just among vocal fans like Quentin Tarantino and Patton Oswalt (the latter of whom once publicly pitched his own idea for an Unbreakable trilogy), but also online, where the movie is still siring conversation among movie-nerds on a near-daily basis. As far as wholly original superhero tales go, it’s a minor marvel.
Still, I had no idea that Shyamalan had actually been planning to return the Unbreakable world until that final moment. When I asked him about it, he told me he’d actually come up with McAvoy’s character while writing Unbreakable, and had even included him in the film’s original script. “This was always meant to be one story,” he said. “I just couldn’t figure out how to write it [at the time].” He also noted that he decided to return to the Unbreakable world in part because of the film’s ever-building following: “[But] I’m not a big sequel guy—I don’t get motivated by the familiar, because the whole fun of writing is discovery,” he said. “So it was hard for me to think of making a traditional sequel to Unbreakable. But [I liked] this idea of, ‘Could I make a psychological thriller, and at the end of the movie, switch genres and have everyone realize it was an origin story?’”
The bigger question, of course, is whether this is an Un-and-done cameo to appease the fans, or groundwork for a bigger story that would pull together various characters from Shyamalan’s cinematic eco-system. It wouldn’t be totally out of nowhere, as Shyamalan’s films have always been tethered together in some way, whether it’s by location—Philadelphia and its surrounding regions have figured in nearly all of his movies—or by thematic concerns (few filmmakers have dealt with the heartbreaks of parenting as frequently, or as empathetically). Uniting a few of his characters on-screen would make sense, and serve as a fitting third act for a guy who loves an unforeseen denouement…
…and yet a full-scale M. Night superheroes-versus-villians story (Unbreakable 2?) would also likely mean a return to the kind of swollen-budget, big-studio filmmaking from which Shyamalan only recently escaped. I kind of like where he is now: Working cheaper and creepier, readjusting his box-office and critical expectations, and finding a middle ground between grindhouse and art-house. As much as I’d dig seeing the further misadventures of Mr. Glass, we need a few more years of M. Night in full beast mode, running around and causing chaos. Who knows how this will all end?